The population frequency of human mitochondrial DNA variants is highly dependent upon mutational bias


Next-generation sequencing can quickly reveal genetic variation potentially linked to heritable disease. As databases encompassing human variation continue to expand, rare variants have been of high interest, since the frequency of a variant is expected to be low if the genetic change leads to a loss of fitness or fecundity. However, the use of variant frequency when seeking genomic changes linked to disease remains very challenging. Here, we explore the role of selection in controlling human variant frequency using the HelixMT database, which encompasses hundreds of thousands of mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA) samples. We find that a substantial number of synonymous substitutions, which have no effect on protein sequence, were never encountered in this large study, while many other synonymous changes are found at very low frequencies. Further analyses of human and mammalian mtDNA datasets indicate that the population frequency of synonymous variants is predominantly determined by mutational biases rather than by strong selection acting upon nucleotide choice. Our work has important implications that extend to the interpretation of variant frequency for non-synonymous substitutions.

Competing Interest Statement

The authors have declared no competing interest.


  • Changes to the text, along with additional analyses, are found in this new version of the manuscript. Peer review comments and responses associated with this revised version were posted on bioRxiv by Review Commons on September 8, 2021.

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